An AcWriMo blog post by Brittany Amell, third-year doctoral student in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies.

When you think about doing a literature review, what comes to mind?

I’ll go first: I have parallel and simultaneous feelings of panic and satisfaction. I have a vision of running to—and from—stacks of books, rows of bookshelves, and a huge pizza screaming “eat me, who cares!”

Two of my favourite authors on graduate writing, Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, asked students in one of their literature review workshops to answer the following:

When you think about doing a literature review, what is it like for you? What image or metaphor comes to mind? (Kamler & Thomson, 2006, p. 32)

Students’ responses were as varied as they were the same: all in all, they conveyed a sense of feeling completely lost, overwhelmed, and confused.

This is completely natural, Thomson and Kamler soothe. Graduate students’ statuses as newcomers to the field, combined with a lack of clarity around purposes for reading and the sheer volume of literature available all contribute to feelings of being lost (Thomson & Kamler, 2016). Plus, “neat map[s]” that help us “navigate the landscape” of literature are hard, if impossible, to come by (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, p. 34-35). What to do?

Watch cat videos on Tumblr!

Just kidding—unless “cat videos on Tumblr” is a metaphor. No, seriously. Metaphors can be our superpower: They can help us transform and reimagine how we think about and understand our research and writing (Hughes & Tight, 2013; Lakoff & Johnson, 2003; Thomson & Kamler, 2016).

“Metaphors” are the process of using one concept to understand another (Kövecses, 2002). Put another way, the “heart of metaphor is inference” (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003, p. 244). We use metaphors to help us reason, communicate, and understand the world.

Metaphors are so commonly found in our language that they are often taken for granted (Hughes & Tight, 2013). Metaphors might be spatial, orientational, linguistic, ontological, conceptual, as well as visual or embodied (Hughes & Tight, 2013; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Reynolds, 1998). For example, if I say to you that the price of pencils dropped recently, you would likely understand that I am suggesting that the cost of pencils today is lesser than it was yesterday (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Similarly, if you asked me how I was feeling and if I replied that I was feeling down or blue, you would also likely understand that I am suggesting I am sad, assuming that I was in fact not literally the colour of blue or situated below you on the ground.

Thomson and Kamler (2016) suggest that metaphors offer powerful ways to tap “into [our] thoughts and feelings about research and how [we] might think – and act – differently” in terms of our writing and research (p. 41). In terms of literature reviews, the authors offer metaphors as a strategy that we graduate students can use to reframe how we conceptualise reviewing the literature. One metaphor that I have found useful in thinking about the literature review has been the idea of arranging a lunch or dinner. Here is Thomson and Kamler’s description of this metaphor:

The purpose . . . is to foster conversation. . . .You will invite to the table [selected] scholars you want to join you for a conversation about a particular topic. The emphasis is on the company and the conversation that happens over lunch. So the first decision is who’s coming to lunch? Who do you want to invite? Whose work do you use the most? Whose work is important in the field [or topic] and can’t be left out? The second decision is what you will serve your guests. You don’t want to offer bland, tired vegetables. . .the menu needs thought, preparation and attention to presentation. The third decision is how will you seat your guests. Who will sit with you at the head of the table? Who do you most want to engage in conversation? Whose work has most influenced you [your topic, or your decisions regarding your topic choice]? Who do you want to speak back to? Who are you happy to acknowledge and greet, but seat further away from you? Are there any guests who don’t get along and should not sit next to one another? . . . The lunch metaphor makes it clear that you cannot invite everyone; they will not all fit at your table. (Thomson & Kamler, 2016, pp. 42-43)

Using metaphors for other aspects of writing and research

If you are interested in learning more, you can check out this post by Frances Kelly. Kelly writes about using metaphors to conceptualise the thesis or dissertation project. Here’s another post on the same theme by Pat Thomson.

And here is a post by Rod Pitcher (for the Thesis Whisperer) on using metaphors to describe research. You can also take a look at Barret and Hussey (2015—see references list below) for a discussion of using visual aids (including metaphors) to overcome writing challenges and blocks.

AcWriMo Week 1 Writing Challenge: Don’t use metaphors!

Just kidding! All this talk about metaphors, whether for the literature review or otherwise, leads me to challenge you to make metaphors work for you this week.

You could start by using the lunch/dinner party example mentioned earlier to work on your literature review. You could start by finding an entirely different metaphor for your writing and research purpose. Maybe by answering Kamler and Thomson’s (2006) question: When you think about doing (thesis/dissertation/section of paper/other), what is it like for you? What image or metaphor comes to mind? (p. 32). Finally, and more importantly, you could start by helping me edit a video of my cat: I found some inspiration on YouTube, and I’m thinking pizza overlays with some heavily synth-ed music, maybe laser beams.


Barrett, T.  & Hussey, J. (2015). Overcoming problems in doctoral writing through the use of visualisations: Telling our stories. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(1), 48-63.

Hughes, C., & Tight, M. (2013). The metaphors we study by: The doctorate as a journey and/or as work. Higher Education Research & Development, 32(5), 765–775.

Kamler, B., & Thomson, P. (2006). Helping doctoral students write: strategies for supervision. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kövecses, Z. (2002). Metaphor: A practical introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago.

Reynolds, N. (1998). Composition’s imagined geographies: The politics of space in the frontier, city, and cyberspace. College Composition and Communication, 50(1), 12–35.

Thomson, P., & Kamler, B. (2016). Detox your writing: Strategies for doctoral researchers. New York, NY: Routledge.